The Myanmar army has filed a criminal defamation lawsuit against international news agency Reuters and local lawmaker Maung Kyaw Zan, according to the country’s police.
The lawsuit surfaced several weeks after the military refuted a news report by Reuters about two Rohingya Muslim women in the state of Rakhine who allegedly died as a result of artillery firing.
Contrary to the Reuters report, said the Myanmar army, the Arakan Army (AA) insurgents fighting for the autonomy of the Rakhine State were responsible for their deaths.
Reuters on Mon (9 Mar) observed that reporters have been banned from the area where the incident occurred.
Police lieutenant Kyaw Thu, the acting station head in Buthidaung township situated in northern Rakhine, told Reuters that both the agency and the lawmaker are being sued under Section 66D of the country’s Telecommunications Act.
This particular legislation, which carries a maximum sentence of two years in jail, has been used to imprison the country’s dissidents and to outlaw online defamation.
“We are trying to make an approach in so far as we can, to find out where Reuters news agency is, what kind of organization it is and the reporter and the editor,” Kyaw Thu told Reuters.
The lieutenant also said that the police has requested the permission of Myanmar’s national parliament speaker to proceed with the case against Maung, a representative of Buthidaung.
The case originated from a complaint from the army over a Reuters story published on 25 Jan this year, in which the lawmaker was quoted as saying that the deaths of the two women were caused by the army’s artillery fire.
The following month, the army held a press conference regarding the story, following which Reuters updated its article to reflect the army’s position.
Despite that, the army proceeded to file a complaint to the Myanmar Press Council (MPC). The MPC adjudicates disputes between news media and authorities.
“Reuters stands by the reporting that is of concern to the military and is the subject of an ongoing discussion with Myanmar’s Press Council,” a Reuters spokesperson said.
“We do not believe there is any basis for criminal action against Reuters or our journalists under Myanmar law. We have not seen any criminal complaint against Reuters, and so cannot comment further at this time,” the spokesperson added.
Maung said that the army’s complaint was unfair, stating that he was conveying the views of the people as their representative.
“As a representative of the people, I listened to what the people told me and I spoke about it. I will just have to face the lawsuit and receive the judgment from the court,” said the lawmaker.
Reuters said it received confirmation from military spokesperson Zaw Min Thun that a complaint was made against the lawmaker. However, Zaw said he was not aware of the suit against Reuters.
Over 750,000 Rohingya fled the Rakhine State in the western region of Myanmar following a military crackdown in 2017.
The country is now facing trial in the International Court of Justice for genocide.
The army denies the charges. Instead, it says that it was fighting a legitimate battle against Rohingya militants who attacked police stations there.
Previously, two Reuters reporters were arrested in Dec and jailed for 18 months after being accused of breaking the country’s Official Secrets Act.
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were working on an investigative story on the killing of 10 Rohingya Muslim men and boys by Buddhist civilians and security forces in Rakhine state. They were released last May.